The 'Atom' 3D printed guitar from Odd Guitars
The emerging industry of 3D printing has had a number of applications within a number of separate sectors, but the notion of 3D printing within the world of guitars is now beginning to gain significant levels of interest.
The idea of actually printing a guitar is quite mindblowing, and quite right too, most people have enough trouble just getting their desktop printers to work with chewing up bits of A4 and bleeding ink everywhere.
The process calls up all sorts of interesting questions; how does it affect the tone of the guitar; what are the advantages of a 3D printed guitar; how the hell does the printing process actually work; and does the very notion of being able to 'print' a guitar ruin the art of the luthier?
We caught up with Olaf Diegel of Odd Guitars, New Zealand, who deals exclusively in 3D printed guitars, and he tried to answer many of these questions for us...
Okay, so I think first things first, what actually possessed you to make 3D printed guitars?
I first started the project just to see if it could be done. I’ve always had an interest in music, from my early days in rock & roll bands, and have been using 3D printing since the mid-90s and just wanted to see if the technology had evolved enough to make a guitar. My first test worked so well that I thought “there has to be a business in this”. It took me 8 months, and many many design iterations to get them perfect, particularly as I had to learn a lot about guitar making along the way, but once I had all that sorted, it didn’t take long to get 8 different guitar and bass designs ready for the market.
Can you take us through the process of how 3D printing actually works, it sort of seems like magic.
These days, pretty much every product is designed using 3D CAD (Computer Aided Design) software. This model is then sent to the 3D Printer and the software slices the model up into very thin slices. Each slice is “printed” on top of the previous one until the model is finished. It’s a similar process of how they used to make old topological contour maps by cutting out slices of cardboard and stacking them up. The various 3D printing process differ only in what material they use, and how they create the layers. The low-end printers use the equivalent of a hot-glue gun to ‘draw’ each slice of the model on top of the next. The printers I use spread a layer of nykon powder and then use a laser to trace out the slice of the model. Wherever the laser hits the powder, the nylon gets melted. At the end of the process, I simply dig my guitar out of a bucket of powder.
In terms of the sound of your guitars, how do they compare in timbre to a standard solid body electric guitar. Is there a big noticeable difference when plugged into an amp, or even just played acoustically?
To all intents and purposes, my guitars are standard electric guitars. 99% of the sound of a guitar is created by the pickups, electronics, amplifier, etc. Though a statement like that is bound to draw shrieks of horror from many, it’s a bit like the argument that vinyl sounds better than CDs. It can’t be won or proven one way or the other. But take the same guitar and stick 2 different brands of pickups on it and it will sound completely different. Where the materials do make a difference is in the sustain (how long a string rings for), and this is where changing the material between the neck and body does absorb some of the vibration. My original designs had a solid nylon body, and on these the unplugged sound was similar to an old National fibreglass guitar I used to have, and the sustain wasn’t as good as it is now. That’s because I then changed the design to have a slab of wood inside the nylon body to join the neck to the bridge. And changing the inner core material from mahogany to maple, for example, allows the customer to customize the sustain of the guitar.
Is there a specific material or composite of materials which makes up the body of your guitars?
The material I have been using for the bodies is a Nylon 12, which is a very commonly used plastic in many products.
How strong is that material, would it withstand the bumps and knocks associated with going on tour?
Nylon is about as strong a plastic as you get. My guitars have travelled around the world a few times and have had no problems at all. But some of the designs do have incredibly fine and detailed features on the indies of the bodies. Much like any fine plastic details on a toy, for example, these could be broken if one tried. But that’s why these are well on the inside of the instruments so they don’t accidentally get broken.
With the purchase of a 3D printer, and of materials, how big are the start up costs for a 3D guitars business?
Though entry level 3D printers can be bought for around $1000, a high-end printer big enough to do a guitar is much more expensive. Anywhere between $500,000 to $1,000,000! But there are plenty of service bureaus around that will print your parts for you, which means you don’t actually need to have your own printer to go into business.
Do you think it will catch on with some of the bigger companies, or do you sort of hope the big guitar companies stay away from it so you can keep a bigger share of the market?
The 2 main advantages that 3D printing gives are the ability to custom-make every instrument to perfectly suit each musician, and the ability to print incredibly complex shapes that simple could not be made any other way. As most big companies want to maximize their profit margins, it is in there interest to make their instruments the same to minimize manufacturing cost. So, I suspect, it is unlikely they would, with their current business models, adopt 3D printing as a mainstream manufacturing technology. But, at the same time, I would love to see what they would come up with it…
Finally, what does the future hold for 3D guitars and Odd guitars?
I’ve just gone into partnership with 3D Systems, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of 3D printing systems, to sell the guitars and basses through their Cubify cloud based printing service (www.cubify.com ). This is great for me as it means I can concentrate on coming up with new designs while they will handle the sales and manufacture of the instruments. I am playing with some new ideas with which the musician can completely customize their sound by having complete control of the pickup positions so that they can find their own sweet-spots. Though several of my designs, so far, have been an homage to the Gibson Les Paul, I am also experimenting with some Fender Stratocaster shapes, and a few aesthetic shapes and designs of my own, and the partnership with 3D Systems gives me the freedom to do this.
To find out more about Olaf's work, head to the Odd Guitars website.
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